An unsuitable Job for a Woman ? Not at all !

By Kerstin Thurow  -  Jan. 10, 2003 , 10:00 AM  SCIENCE AAAS

My job combines two fields, chemistry and engineering, where women are, traditionally, thin on the ground. And indeed, had I listened to some of the people who wanted to give me advice in the early part of my career, then it's the last place that I would have ended up!

After graduating from high school in 1988 I started my chemistry studies at the University of Rostock. At that time becoming a chemist, for me, meant aspiring to a research job in the chemical or pharmaceutical industry, developing new substances and materials. Being a chemist was not, I was told by my teachers, parents, and friends, a job for a young woman. Nonetheless I pursued my special interests in organometallic and analytical chemistry and thus I finished my diploma thesis in 1992 with a combination of both topics. After the diploma I decided to continue my education with a PhD.


 Following the political changes in 1989, and subsequent German reunification, the university system in the former German Democratic Republic was undergoing considerable upheaval. Therefore I applied for PhD positions at a number of different chemistry departments and finally decided to go to the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. Moving to Munich was a great and important experience in my life. Besides getting to grips with an interesting research topic (sulphur and sulphur oxide complexes of transition metals), I had to learn to be responsible for myself and to survive in completely unknown surroundings with new people and unfamiliar situations.


I finished my PhD thesis in 1995. At that time the situation for PhD chemists on the job market was bad. I was 25 years old and had to decide what to do about my future. Research positions in industry were very rare. Selling pharmaceuticals or sitting at a desk in an agency did not really match my expectations of a chemist's life. Luckily, however, a postdoc position in analytical chemistry became available at the University of Rostock at just the right time, and I left Munich to return to my academic roots. Once there I established a division for analytical measurements.

The main thrust of my work was in the environmental sciences. For example, one of our first big projects was the exploration of a chemical warfare agent-contaminated site in Mecklenburg-Westpommerania.


From the start, I was responsible for a laboratory that ran a number of different analytical systems, had to train students in environmental measurement, and came to lead and work in a number of national and international projects. Many of these projects involved working closely with engineers, and so we had the idea that we could combine both sciences and develop automated solutions for chemical and environmental processes in the lab. This combination was very unusual at that time. Indeed most chemists were very skeptical about the idea, and once again I had to have the courage of my convictions and follow the path that seemed right for me, instead of listening to my peers.


Fortunately my engineering colleagues were very supportive--engineers are always interested in finding new fields of application and processes for their work.


In 1996, the university Institute for Automation founded the nonprofit Institute for Measuring and Sensor Systems. I was offered a deputy director position and became the managing director in 1998. The institute forms a bridge between basic research and companies. Besides the interesting scientific work I got to do, I was able--indeed had--to learn all the skills necessary for running a company. Topics such as personnel management, tax, social security, work laws, etc. had not been on my curriculum during my studies in Rostock and Munich. Thus I had to learn them the hard way--on the job.


Today I am back at the university, having been offered the professorship of Laboratory Automation in 1999. This position was, and still is, a big challenge for me. Due to my very young age, being offered this job showed a great deal of confidence in my abilities. My interdisciplinary work at the interface between chemistry and engineering, as well as my experience in establishing and leading a non-university institute, were probably the main reasons for being offering this position as a young woman. Besides my scientific work at the borderline between chemistry, biology, and engineering, I have to teach students in new interdisciplinary areas.


The Institute of Automation is developing customized solutions in the field of life science automation. We are working in an interdisciplinary field between engineering, chemistry, pharmacology, biology, and medicine. For us, the life sciences are not only about high-throughput screening (HTS) of potential drug candidates; they mean more than the handling of microtiterplates. We have seen a dramatic increase in automation and HTS needs in different fields of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, such as catalysis research, synthesis, synthesis optimization, product control, and screening of microorganisms in recent years. The great challenge in our work is the fact that we have customers from different companies with very specific problems. Every solution is customer specific, involving a lot of engineering and development work. Most of our customers turn to us after they have failed to find commercial companies in the marketplace that are able to solve their problems.


One big advantage of our institute is its interdisciplinary team. In our team, electrical engineers, IT people, mechanical engineers, chemists, and biologists work together. This gives us all the chance to understand the complex needs of our customers and to offer complete solutions, from planning, through development, to the application of the systems. Leading such an interdisciplinary team has special challenges, because chemists, biologists, and engineers speak different languages. So, as the leader of such a group you have to be a kind of interpreter. This requires knowledge in many disciplines, as well as a willingness to engage in lifelong learning.

By German standards, the Institute for Automation is not a typical university institute. It represents a modern, innovative way of fostering successful cooperation between industry and universities. There is a great demand from industry for the development of automated solutions in different life science applications. Moreover, all universities should try to find new and interesting research topics in order to ensure a state-of-the-art education for their students. Thus cooperating with industry can result in an ideal combination of the interests of both parties.


As the managing director of the Institute for Automation, I try to run the institute like a company: Developments should lead to a product and should not be more expensive than the money we can get for them on the market. We feel responsible for our scientists and technicians and would like to offer them prospects to be able to continue their work in the future, by retaining and expanding science-based job opportunities in the region.

The big advantage for our institute in the future is being in a niche market which can be defined as complete customer-specific automation. There are still a high number of unsolved problems for different fields of application. New developments include reaction systems for catalysis research, sampling from reactors, systems for high-throughput applications in synthesis, the handling of microorganisms or cell-culturing procedures, and more.


A new building with even more highly specialized lab space (especially chemical and biological labs) will be available in 2004. For next year the institute plans the foundation of a new company for high-throughput analysis. And this will probably not be the end of future developments.

Working in Mecklenburg-Westpommerania, one of the five new post-reunification German states (Länder), has a big advantage: After the political changes the universities, too, underwent a lot of change. Not only the university systems changed, but so too did the people. They lost their old identities at this time and had to find a new place in a new system, a new world. This gives the opportunity, and the need, to try new things and go in new directions. Thus we currently see more developments and more new ideas in the Eastern states than in the well-established systems in the old states.


Certainly I am not doing the job I was thinking about when I started my chemistry studies in 1988. The question about my profession is difficult to answer: Am I a chemist or an engineer? I see myself as a scientist in an interdisciplinary world between life sciences and engineering. I can honestly say that I have found the right job for me and my interests. It gives me complete freedom for all my decisions as well as the chance to try different things. In my current position I have found the perfect combination of scientific work, teaching, and business.


Fig: Kerstin Thurow demonstrating her labs to science minister Edelgard Bulmahn.